'Like the Book of Job'
Adapting a beloved, Pulitzer prize-winning, Oprah-endorsed bestselling book to the screen is never an easy feat. But such was the immense job tasked to John Hillcoat (The Proposition), director of the movie version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, out in theaters tomorrow. A relatively unknown talent from Australia but something of a kindred spirit to McCarthy, Hillcoat approached The Road with great reverence, and the result is impressively faithful to the book.
CT movies critic Brett McCracken recently sat down with Hillcoat in Los Angeles to discuss the look of the film, its spirituality, and what it means to "carry the fire."
Your last film, The Proposition, seems to share some of the same tone and spirit as The Road. Both explore dark, bleak, apocalyptic depths. Do you see a correspondence between the two films?
The Proposition was actually inspired by Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, or at least very influenced by it. I had the idea for an Australian western for a long time, but that book was a huge influence. In both The Proposition and The Road, the landscape is sort of primeval and ancient, which becomes a metaphor that I like. It creates such pressure for the characters that tests them all the time. It becomes almost like a third character. That's what I love about McCarthy's writing. And if you've ever been to the Australian outback, it really is like some ancient, primeval land.
The land is so crucial to The Road. How did you go from the book—which imagines this post-apocalyptic landscape—to the film, which has to visualize it?
The key there was to bring out the familiarity. So rather than a complete fantasy of the future, I wanted to try to embed it into our own deep memory in some way, because that's what the book felt like. To me it had more of an ancient quality as opposed to a futuristic quality. It didn't feel like a sci-fi thing. Simple things like the shopping cart with all the possessions in it—it's such a familiar image. It's the homeless. Those people are living their own apocalypse in a way. How do they get by each day? It's survival. It tests their humanity. As an extension of this idea of basing the world in the familiar, we shot the film in places like Mount St. Helens, where volcanic explosions destroyed all trees, and Pennsylvania, which has the leftover scars of the mining business—abandoned neighborhoods and freeways. But the most poignant of all was working in New Orleans, where they are still cleaning up from Katrina. We tried to get as much in camera as possible. Like the world of McCarthy, it's a quite real and visceral world that the actors are interacting with.
During the making of the film, you met with McCarthy a number of times. What was he like to work with?
Well, the legacy of McCarthy was a huge weight on my shoulders. The book is now the most translated book of modern times. Then there's the Pulitzer Prize, Oprah Winfrey, No Country for Old Men. I tried not to think about all that. But when I started talking with Cormac about it, he really released me from this burden. He said look, a book's a book and a film's a film. They are totally different mediums. He never asked for a script and I never gave him a script. He said I'm here, I'm available. He's a wonderful man. He's very kind, generous, deeply spiritual — a great mind and poet.